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Children songs

Published on 11/09/2014 @ 8:00am

[This article was originally published in Spanish on dSong, on 11/09/2014]

The other day, I wrote about "La Tarara", a children's song with a flamenco version by Camarón de la Isla. From that post, I decided to continue reading about popular children's songs, and the ones that I learned/sang when I was a little kid (and not so little).

I know this article is a bit long, but it is interesting too. In it, I will unveil some curiosities that you may not know about children songs in Spanish; for example, the meaning of "Matarile-rile-rile" in "¿Dónde están las llaves?" ("Where are the keys?") or the origin of songs like "Tengo una vaca lechera" or "Duérmete niño".

Why this sudden obsession with children songs? Two reasons: 1) These are some of the songs that marked my childhood; and 2) Jill and I are expecting a baby girl and, although we are really far away from Spain (5,167 miles between Austin and Jaén to be exact), we'd like for her to know and learn her father's culture.

Once that has been clarified, let's go! This post starts with...

Duérmete niño (Sleep my baby)

Who hasn't heard this lullaby? It is a classic, and that's exactly what it is if we consider that it is based on "Rock-a-bye Baby" whose earlier versions date from 1,765 and some people date them even earlier from chats of 1,661.

In all honesty, I always found the lyrics a bit shocking:

El Coco

Duérmete niño,
duérmete ya,
que viene el Coco
y te comerá.
Sleep my baby,
sleep now,
the Coco is coming
and it will eat you.

Parents are commanding the kids to go to sleep because there is a monster/bad man that will come and eat them if they are not sleeping. How is a kid going to sleep knowing that such a character is walking around and could show up at any moment?!

And it's not something exclusive from the Spanish version, the English lyrics for "Rock-a-bye Baby" are not much better, and also a little bit creepy. In that song, the crib is on top a tree branch (why?), the branch breaks (surprise!) and down go the baby, the crib, and the branch (the outcome is not described, but we can imagine it).

Seriously, why are parents so interested in kids dying if they don't go to sleep?... I guess I will find out sooner than later.

La Tarara

"La Tarara" is an interesting song. It is a children's song that boys and girls used to sing while dancing around in circles (like "El corro de la patata", "The Potato Circle"), but that a lot of people know because of the flamenco version that Camarón de la Isla recorded as a homage to Federico García Lorca.

La Tarara

Truth is, the origins of this song date from way before Lorca, but it was the great Andalusian poet the one that wrote the most popular lyrics (as many other folk/traditional songs, there are many versions depending on the region).

The writer from Granada was inspired by the lyrics sang in Soria and it surroundings back in mid-XIX century, that were based in other even older lyrics with Sephardic origins.

Colloquially, tarara means mad, insane, or crazy. And if we take into account the lyrics that were transmitted orally, the name is really appropriate because "La Tarara" is an amazing character:

  • She wears a bright green dress with bells attached to it (o trousers just made up exclusively of buttons);
  • She dances all the time in the countryside around the grass and the bushes;
  • She has a "deformed" finger that doctors cannot fix;
  • Her cat only eats lettuce (as a second course!)...

No doubt, saying that La Tarara is an interesting character is just saying too little.

Tengo una vaca lechera (I have a dairy cattle)

Ok, I admit it. I am going to enjoy more singing this song than the baby listening to it; because this is one of those children songs that I like to sing (sadly for people around me) when I am in a happy/party state of mind.

As with all the popular songs, there are many versions of this song, but in general it only changes the rythm (sometimes faster, sometimes slower) while the lyrics remain the same. This unity is caused in part because it is a "fairly recent" song and it's well documented.

"Mi Vaca Lechera" ("My Dairy Cattle", that is the real name of the song) was written in 1946 by Jacobo Morcillo, that partnered with Fernando García Morcillo (they were not related) who came up with the melody. This professional partnership continued later and brought other "hits" such as "María Dolores", that was popularized by Los Panchos and Joan Báez.

And I cannot be the only one that remembers the version "Tengo un OVNI Formidable" ("I have a wonderful UFO") that Juan Luis Cano (one half of the comedic duo Gomaespuma) recorded for the soundtrack of the movie "El Milagro de P. Tino" directed by Javier Fesser (Guillermo Fesser's brother, the other half of Gomaespuma).

Debajo de un botón (Underneath a button)

I always liked this song because it is simple and easy to play in almost any instrument (and by "almost any instrument" I mean the school fipple flute and the small Casio piano that most of us had growing up... and that sadly are the only instruments that I kind of played when I was a kid).

Un raton debajo de un boton

It is also a song that doesn't make sense to me: How is it possible that a mouse fits underneath a button? Is it a "dwarf-mouse"? Or is it a giant button? How big is Mr Martin?... I guess it's a children song and there's no point on trying to make sense at all.

Two versions can be found: a short one (with 2 verses) and a long one (4 verses), although both are almost similar in lyrics, only two thing change: in one Mr Martin is an old man (while in the other one it is undisclosd), and also the final place for the mouse changes (the short version ends with the mouse under the button; while in the long version, it ends up living in one of Mr Martin's socks).

Apart from being easy to play, another advantage of this song (at least from the academic point of view) is that the lyrics are formed by simple and repetitive sentences, and all of them in past simple. Making it ideal to use in a Spanish I classroom...

¿Dónde están las llaves? (Where are the keys?)

To finish this (long) article, let's see another song that used to be sang by children while dancing in circles: "¿Dónde están las llaves?" (sorry if you expected "El Corro de la Patata", we'll have to leave that one for another occassion).

It originated in France and in the traditional song "Ah! Mon beau château!", that is already mentioned in French books from the first half of the XIX century, and that was sang by girls while dancing in two opposite circles.

"¿Dónde están las llaves?" has an insane number of versions in Spanish that vary from region to region, and from country to country: the first verse goes from the "Yo tengo un castillo" of Spain, to "Ambosador" of Dominican Republic, through the "Amambró cható" of Venezuela (a clear distorsion of the French original).

All of them have one thing in common though: the second verse of the chorus is the same for all of them ("Matarile-rile-rile")... But what does "Matarile-rile-rile" mean? It means nothing in Spanish, and it's not related to "dar matarile" ("to kill"), but to yet another distorsion from the French verses:

Ah ! Mon beau château !
Ma tant', tire, lire, lire ;
Ah ! Mon beau château !
Ma tant', tire, lire, lo.

Yes, "Matarile-rile-rile" comes from the French "Ma tant' tire, lire, lire" that can be translated as "My aunt pulls, reads, and reads"... Again, sorry if you expected something deep and profund: this is a children songs!


If you are still reading: Thank you. I know it is a really long post, as I know that I left a lot of children's songs without mention: "Que llueva, que llueva", "Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul", "Cinco lobitos", "El patio de mi casa"... I will have to write a second part eventually.

And now that you have read until here, why not leave a comment? Is there a song that marked your childhood and that I didn't mention? Or any song that you loved/hated as a kid?


For more audio options and more music recommedations, visit dSong (in Spanish).